More than 99.99% of facts are not and will never be useful to even a single person. – Mokokoma Mokhonoana
A few days back I wrote about a video by Larry McEnerney from the University of Chicago, in which he also introduced a model about writing which has wide applications for people in business.
If you’re a professional with some experience you have no doubt come across the following situation.
You’re in a meeting or giving a presentation and you give it your all – you talk about your experience and what you’ve learned and really set out a good argument.
And it falls flat.
Your audience sits there, with polite incomprehension – or worse, they misunderstand what you’ve said.
Why does this happen?
You followed the rules – perhaps you had no words on your presentation, only images.
Maybe you made sure everything was 18 point font or greater.
You used short, old words.
You made sure that you didn’t start sentences with “and” or “because”.
And they still didn’t get it.
What comes first, the rule or the result?
Robert Pirsig, in his book Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance talks about the strange world of critics and rules.
When artists paint, when writers write – do they follow rules, do they remember their grammar?
Or do they write – pour out their passion – and are the rules created afterwards to try and capture what they did?
It’s a strange thing but you can write like Shakespeare and never really be like Shakespeare.
These days if you tried to compose things like a 16th century bard you’d probably be laughed at, or worse, ignored.
Think of a business person you admire – did they become successful by following rules?
Yes, you can see what they achieved and describe what they did – but did they knowingly use those ways when they were busily building their business?
The chances are that they didn’t.
Some people do.
And some of us watch – and paste on the rules later.
Oddly enough, rules can be of very little use in real life.
What is your relationship with the world?
The thing with writers is that we often use writing as a way to think about the world.
Writing is a way for us to work through our own thoughts – a way to find out what we think.
Few people sit down and simply type out a fully formed idea.
Just like few people walk into their office and create a fully formed business.
Let’s say you run a marketing agency – you’re probably thinking every day about how to differentiate yourself, how to stand out, how to show clients how you’re different.
And this takes experimenting – trying out different approaches, partnering with people who have skills you don’t and creating propositions that you can put to prospects.
In a sense, you’re using the container of your business to figure out what niche in the world it can occupy – just like a writer uses the container of text to think about the world.
Imagine all those streams of thought moving in lines away from you, embedding themselves in the world.
Are your consumers thinking the same way?
McEnerney’s point in his video is about how the relationship writers have with the world is very different from the relationship readers have with the world.
At the intersection of the writer and reader is the text – the dots that you’ve created.
At the intersection of the creator and consumer is the business you’ve created.
You’ve used your writing to think about the world.
The reader reads your writing to learn about the world – or perhaps be entertained – maybe both.
Imagine the reader’s desires radiating down towards the world – these are what your text or business have to satisfy.
So, although you’ve created your thing to help you, you need to make it in a way so it helps your consumer.
And this is harder to do than it sounds – because it’s very hard to get out of your own head and see the world from someone else’s point of view.
Are you listening?
And to do that there is one simple thing you have to learn to do – learn to listen.
Many people believe that if they come up with a good idea the market will rise up in applause and give them money.
If you know anything about the future, you know it’s hard to predict.
The one certainty you have is the past – which is why many ancient cultures looked back for wisdom.
The future will arrive… and you will probably be surprised when it does.
After all, how many people predicted we’d have a global lockdown this month?
But if you take the time to listen to your consumer, to ask questions and explore what they have done, then you will learn more about what they will do than you realise.
And that’s because past behaviour is a much more reliable predictor of future behaviour than statements about the future.
If you ask someone if they like your product – it costs them nothing to say yes and avoid hurting your feelings.
If you ask them whether they have bought a product like yours in the past – that tells you a lot more about their willingness to put their hands in their pocket.
If you want to be useful, try to understand what your consumers are in the habit of doing – and then help them do more of that.
If it’s good for them, of course…